Renaissance is the period of European history that saw a renewed interest in the arts. The Renaissance began in 14th-century Italy and spread to the rest of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. In this period, the fragmented feudal society of the Middle Ages, with its agricultural economy and church-dominated intellectual and cultural life, was transformed into a society increasingly dominated by central political institutions, with an urban, commercial economy and lay patronage of education, the arts, and music. The term renaissance, meaning literally “rebirth.” Modern scholars have exploded the myth that the Middle Ages were dark and dormant. The thousand years preceding the Renaissance were filled with achievements. Because of the scriptoria (writing rooms) of medieval monasteries, Latin writers, such as Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and Seneca, were preserved. The legal system of modern continental Europe had its origin in the development of civil and canon law in the 12th and 13th centuries. Renaissance thinkers continued the medieval tradition of grammatical and rhetorical studies. In theology, the medieval traditions of Scholasticism, Thomism, Scotism, and Ockhamism were continued in the Renaissance. Medieval Platonism and Aristotelianism were crucial to Renaissance philosophical thought. The advances of mathematical disciplines, including astronomy, were indebted to medieval precedents. The schools of Salerno, Italy, and Montpellier, France, were noted centers of medical studies in the middle Ages.
The Italian Renaissance was above all an urban phenomenon, a product of cities that flourished in central and northern Italy, such as Florence, Ferrara, Milan, and Venice. It was the wealth of these cities that financed Renaissance cultural achievements. The cities themselves, however, were not creations of the Renaissance, but of the period of great economic expansion and population growth during the 12th and 13th centuries. Medieval Italian merchants developed commercial and financial techniques, such as bookkeeping and bills of exchange. The creation of the public debt, a concept unknown in ancient times, allowed these cities to finance their territorial expansion through military conquest. Their merchants controlled commerce and finance across Europe. This fluid mercantile society contrasted sharply with the rural, tradition-bound society of medieval Europe; it was less hierarchical and more concerned with secular objectives.
The recovery and study of the classics entailed the creation of new disciplines—classical philology and archaeology, numismatics, and epigraphy—and critically affected the development of older ones. In art, the decisive break with medieval tradition occurred in Florence about 1420 with the invention of linear perspective, which made it possible to represent three-dimensional space on a flat surface. The works of the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the painter Masaccio are dazzling examples of...